Starting a Food Business

how to start a food business in Oakland : City and county permits

This is our second post in the series on how to start a food business in Oakland. This post is written by Matt Johansen, co-founder of Forage Kitchen. Our first is written by co-founder Iso Rabins, and covers the existential crisis of what to decide to focus your business on. Check it out here.


Starting a new business can be hard. And starting a new food business can be downright overwhelming.  Working with food comes with a unique set of challenges due to the multitude of permits that can be required by city, county, state or even federal entities. These administrative requirements can stop anyone in their tracks and kill their dream.

I’ve started a number of businesses in my life, ranging from educational non-profits to restaurants. While each one had its own complexities, the food-related businesses by far outweighed the others in terms of the sheer number of rules, regulations, and just plain unknowns that I initially found very frustrating to navigate.

Below is a step-by-step process, with corresponding resource links, that I hope will make it a little easier to chart your course when you venture into your dream of ownership. The bureaucrats don’t make it easy to navigate the labyrinth of permits and licenses (which need to be obtained in a specific order), but following this guide will put you on the right path! At Forage Kitchen, we pride ourselves on being a resource for our chefs, so if you have any questions, definitely feel free to reach out.



Step 1: Business Name & EIN Number

Fictitious Business Name: What’s the name of your business? If you plan on giving your business a name different from your own, you’ll need a fictitious business name statement. If you’re going to use your own name, you are exempt from this step.

1)    Below is a link to an overview about how to file a fictions business name in Alameda County. Link:

2)    It’s recommended that you search the fictitious name directory to see if anyone else has the name you have in mind.


3)    Once you’ve chosen your business name, here is the form you’ll need to fill out and send in, along with a check.


Employer Identification Number (EIN): Below is a link to the IRS website where you can obtain an EIN number. You will need this if you are applying for a business license in Oakland.



Step 2: California Seller’s Permit

If you are engaged in business in California and wish to sell products, then you are subject to sales tax and you’ll need to obtain a seller’s permit. Please find the link below that will guide you through the process. This is essential if you are applying for a business license in Oakland.



Step 3: Insurance

Insurance is always a challenging thing to figure out. The Food Liability Insurance Company (FLIP) is an inexpensive and straightforward general liability insurance company for new food businesses. Below is a link that will guide you through the signup process.



Step 4: Oakland Business License

Every business operating out of Oakland must have a business license. To obtain a business license, you will need to do two things. First, obtain a Zoning Clearance Number. Second, file an Oakland business license application. Please note that you will need to have a state seller’s number and an EIN number before taking this step.

Zoning Clearance Number: This is required for all Oakland-based businesses and notifies the City of the type of business you are operating. Simply fill out this form and return it to: 250 Frank Ogawa Plaza, 2nd Floor, Oakland.


Oakland Business License: Once you receive your Zoning Clearance Number, head downstairs to the Business License Office and file your New Business application. The link below will give you a rundown of how it works and a link to the application.



Step 5: California Food Handler Certificate

If you work with food and sell to the general public in California, you are required to have a California Food Handler Certificate. There are two different types of certificate: one for managers and one for employees. In Oakland, every business needs at least one person with a manager certificate.  I won’t lie to you, this one’s a hassle. Unlike the employee certificate, this requires taking an all-day class. Plus, they’re not often available, so don’t delay in signing up— you might have to wait as long as a few months before you get a spot.

You will need this when you apply for an Alameda County Health Permit. Look for information about both certificates and a link to classes that are required in order to obtain your certificate.

Food Safety Certification for Managers: California State Law requires that at least one person operating a food business be in possession of a Food Safety Manager Certificate (Cal. Retail Food Code, §113947.1) and has trained his or her employees in the correct food safety practices. This person should be on the premises of a food business during operation, or should designate a different person in charge of food safety when absent. The Food Safety Manager Certificate is good for five (5) years, and is offered in many different languages. Please find a link to classes below.


California Food Handler Certificate (Food Handler Card-Employee): All employees that handle food must have a food handler card, except for the Person in Charge (PIC) (see above). Training to receive a food handler card is available online, and is good for three (3) years. Once completed, the employee should print his or her certification card. Every food-handling employee needs to have a Food Handler Card, but only one person needs to have his or her Food Safety Manager Certificate (see above).



Step 6: Alameda County Health Permit

Obtaining a county permit can be complex and depends on the type of business you’re operating and the way in which you sell your product to the public (retail, wholesale, farmers markets, etc.).  In some cases, you will fall under state programs, sometimes under county programs, and sometimes under a combination of both. I would love to tell you exactly what you’ll need here, but since there are so many different permits for different types of businesses, I’ve provided the best (and most clear) info from the Health Department, with links below:

This is the home page for mobile food permits and is a great place to start. Please note that you will need the following items when applying for a health permit: a Food Handler Management Certificate and a City of Oakland business license. You may be required to obtain specific state licenses depending on your product.


Catering Registration: This registration is for caterers hired for private events only. Catering, in this context, means that an order is placed prior to the event, and the caterer prepares the food and delivers it to the venue. The order transaction needs to be done prior to the event.


Mobile Food Facilities Application: If you are catering at public events, or selling to the general public, then you need to obtain and file a Mobile Food Facilities application. Please note that you may fall into a state program that is more applicable to your needs. This is a gray area within the state and the county depending on the type of food you are selling and how you are selling it. Please see state permits below. Below is a link to the county application.


Hope that helps you in your journey to becoming a legit business. If you ever have any questions or are looking for kitchen space, feel free to reach out to me directly at

Matt Johansen
Partner: Forage Kitchen

Next up: A step by step on navigating the labyrinth of state licenses.

How to start a food business in Oakland #1: Figuring out what to make

At Forage Kitchen, we’ve created a space where people with or without a food background can fulfill their dream of starting a food business. To that end, I thought I’d write up a no-nonsense guide on how to get started. Here goes!

1.     What to make:

If you don’t know what you want to make, starting a food business can seem daunting. I suggest picking something you really love and which—in your opinion—you haven’t seen done well. Running a business is hard, and it’s even harder if you’re making something that you’re not really excited about. Don’t worry if you can’t see yourself making it for the rest of your life, just make sure you’re excited about it RIGHT NOW.

Most of the success of any business rests on the passion of its owners. People want to support people who are excited about what they’re doing. That excitement will show though in all kinds of ways, from the way you talk about it and how good it tastes, to your marketing and the employees you hire, so make sure the excitement is there, or your chances of success will probably be slim.

If you’re still stuck, go to a market you see yourself selling in and observe what they have. Is there anything you LOVE that you’ve never seen sold? Look at what’s out there, but most importantly, at what’s not there.

2.     Start at home with a Cottage Food Permit:

As much as I’d love to tell you that, as soon as you find your idea, you should come to Forage Kitchen, it just wouldn’t be true. Start at home. With all the costs of renting a kitchen (even the much-reduced costs of being in a shared space like ours), it’s very hard to get a brand new business off the ground. You want to be 100% certain of your product before making that investment.

We’re lucky in California to have access to Cottage Food permits, which allow you to make products at home to sell at farmers markets and to local stores.

Unfortunately, this permit doesn’t cover all food products, only “non-potentially hazardous foods.” (Basically, you can’t make anything that you’d need to store in a refrigerator).  I’m not an expert on this, but the great folks over at SELC (a group that was VERY instrumental in getting the law passed) have an FAQ section that should answer any questions you have on this issue Check it out here.

For everything else, you’ll need to use a commercial kitchen before you start selling. I’d still recommend being insanely over-prepared before taking this step. Have everything ready: your branding,. your packaging, your consumer trials. Get people to try your product (and not just your friends, because they’ll all tell you “IT’S AMAZING!!!”)

I’m not suggesting that your product isn’t amazing, but you’ll save a lot of time and cash by getting second opinions. Forage Kitchen organizes a great venue called “Tasting Table” at BatchMade Market (each first Friday of the month), where you can drop off your food items and get consumer feedback, which is super helpful. But you can go even further. Set up a table down the street from a farmers market and offer samples. Go on Craigslist and offer free food in exchange for feedback. Email food makers you love and ask for their opinion. Come up with your own clever ideas! In my experience, food veterans love to help passionate newbies—but you need to ask. Don’t be shy! I had knots in my stomach cold calling folks when I first started (I still do!), but I can’t overstate the importance of putting yourself out there. You won’t be sorry.

Just make sure you know what you’re doing before paying for a kitchen. Money burns fast once you get to that step.

Here’s a link to the cottage food permit:


Next post: Brass tacks! My business partner Matt will give a step by step layout of what permits you'll need and where to get them.

To keep up to date on my posts, subscribe to my Tiny Letter here